Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

The Triumph of Geoffrey Hill

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

The Triumph of Geoffrey Hill

Article excerpt

Geoffrey Hill. The Triumph of Love. Houghton Mifflin 1998. 82 pp. $22.00

For every poem encrusted in learning like The Waste Land or The Cantos (whether Eliot's mandarin allusions or Pound's half learned learning), needing a road map for the shortest distance from here to there, thousands of verses are plainer than pudding, poems men wrote but only children can read. The fewer its readers the easier most poetry gets, trying to tempt back the lost souls seduced by narrative or the frisson of memoir, to say nothing of entertainments or disciplines that require no reading at all. Like Hansel trailing bread crumbs through a black forest, many poets hope to leave clues. The birds just dine on their verses.

Geoffrey Hill's hectoring, philosophical, bitter new poem ends where it begins, in the stagnant landscape of childhood recalled, resurrection delayed, that has haunted the mean and humid nature of his verse. The Triumph of Love meets his demons on his own terms, terms favorable to demons but unfavorable to the reader. Hill is a difficult poet and requires a difficult reader, one not defeated by his salient of allusion and arcane reference, his Maginot Line of haggard pun and thickened phrase. A fractured howl of anger and self contempt, the 150 sections of The Triumph of Love start with a single static fragment:

Sun-blazed, over Romsley, a livid rain-scarp. (1)

Hill does not allow his poems to admit themselves too demurely to the reader's attention. The Triumph of Love must begin somewhere; and at the outset Hill lets section stutter to brief section, illuminating like flashes of lightning (or signal flares) the themes and tutelary spirits that control the phrases afterward.

The reader who wants to stand at equality with such a line must know, or at pains discover, that Romsley is the site of a church sacred to St. Kenelm, a church by legend erected over the spot where his body was found. The reader must know that Romsley (the name means "wild garlic wood"), now swallowed by the city of Birmingham, is half a dozen miles north of Bromsgrove, where Hill was born. Often enough, Hill provides hints if not implications. Half a-dozen sections later we get:

Romsley, of all places!-Spraddled ridgevillage sacred to the boy-martyr, Kenelm, his mouth full of blood and toffee. A stocky water tower built like the stump of a super-dreadnought's foremast. It could have set Coventry ablaze with pretend broadsides, some years before that armoured city suddenly went down, guns firing, beneath the horizon; huge silent whumphs of flame-shadow bronzing the nocturnal cloud-base of her now legendary dust. (VII)

Kenelm (Cynehelm) was one of those errors of church history where fiction overwhelmed fact. Supposedly king of Mercia at the age of seven, he was murdered by his jealous sister and his tutor. This was retrospective, eleventh-century fantasy for William of Malmesbury and others. The real ninth-century Cynehelm died in manhood, probably fighting the Welsh, and never succeeded to his father's throne.

Why invoke this forgotten and fictitious saint? Partly for reasons private and irrecoverable. Hill does not reveal how much childknowledge he had of the child martyr: The associations are telling, perhaps too telling. Here was a boy murdered by his teacher in a nearby village, a boy who became martyr to a faith-what better ghost for a poet convinced the past lives in the present, whose poem turns toward childhood with a mixture of fascination and dread, whose own learning has part murdered faith and feeling in him? The boy Kenelm, "mouth full of blood and toffee," exists unsteadily in present and past (like Hill's King Offa in Mercian Hymns). That single line is followed by lines whose resonance becomes more acute as the poem progresses:

Guilts were incurred in that place, now I am convinced: self molestation of the child-soul, would that be it? (II)

Poems of course never begin quite where they begin. …

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